Natural Foods Merchandiser

Ginseng export rule change alarms industry

A new decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service limiting the export of wild American ginseng to plants 10 years or older, as opposed to the previous criterion of five years, came as a surprise to harvesters and others in the herbal products industry, who said they would have liked to have been included in the decision-making process.

Since most wild American ginseng is exported to Asian markets, cutting the number of exportable plants by such a large percentage is a major blow to U.S. harvesters, some of whom planned to begin their annual harvest in August.

"The ramifications of this are pretty much a four-year moratorium (on ginseng harvesting) and that ginseng will become frighteningly expensive," said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association.

The FWS finding, made for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, was announced Aug. 3. The finding was based on concerns for the dwindling population of the ginseng variety Panax quinquefolius. If the ginseng plants are harvested before they become mature enough to produce seeds, or if harvested plants are replanted improperly, the viability of the species is threatened. Other hazards include deer browsing and illegal harvesting. Differences in harvesting rules from state to state also contributed to the problem, FWS said.

McGuffin said the decision was made behind closed doors, without a notice and comment process, leaving him and others in the industry out of the loop. Pointing out that ginseng harvesters have a vested interest in the sustainability of the plant's populations, McGuffin said harvesters had suggestions they might have contributed, if they had been allowed to comment beforehand. "This would have been an ideal way for FWS to work with the industry," McGuffin said.

He said organizations like AHPA could have worked to train harvesters to effectively replant after harvesting, minimizing loss because of incorrect planting practices. McGuffin said the ginseng variety has survived in places that were previously deforested, indicating the plants' survival probably depended on human intervention. McGuffin also pointed out that the discrepancies in states' harvesting rules could be addressed, since only three states did not conform.

"There could have been a better process to this," said McGuffin. "They could have put out draft findings and invited us all in to discuss it and come up with a negotiated finding."

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